The meta description tag doesn’t matter for SEO (but it’s still important…)

A few days ago, I got into a discussion on a forum about meta tags and their benefits for search engine optimization. The original poster had asked about which meta tags were the most important for SEO.

The overwhelming response was, “Meta tags?! Nobody cares about those anymore — don’t waste your time!” For SEO maybe, but ignoring meta tags altogether could mean that you’re missing out on valuable clicks when your site shows up in the SERPs (search engine results pages).

Sure, for any kind of SEO, meta tags are pretty useless. I was still surprised at how many people dismissed meta tags completely. Especially, when having a good meta description tag can be the difference between somebody clicking on your result in the SERPs or moving on to the next result.

In most cases, Google, Yahoo, and MSN will pull some (if not all) of your meta description as the “snippet” for your listing in the SERPs. Having a good description (that you control) in your snippet will increase your chances of a searcher clicking on your link in the results.

It’s not enough to have your website show up on the first page of search results if people aren’t clicking on your link .

Here’s an example from a Google search for vancouver bc:



Each snippet consists of the title (the clickable link), a description, and the URL. Here are the meta descriptions for both pages:

<meta name="description" content="Tourism Vancouver, the web site for Vancouver tourism, hotels, travel and meeting planning information. Book hotels in Vancouver online, plan your activities in Vancouver">

<meta name="description" content="City of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada municipal government website." >

You’ll notice that the description in the search snippet for is the meta description (albeit truncated), but it’s not for the official city of Vancouver site. Why could this be?

My best guess is that it’s related to the search query. For this example, I’d searched “vancouver bc”. Earlier, I’d mentioned that, in most cases, the search engines pull some (if not all) of the meta description content to display in the snippet. In displaying results, Google tries to display content relevant to the keywords used in the search.

Since the city of Vancouver’s website has the text Vancouver, BC on the page and not in the meta description, Google chose to show a snippet containing a line of text from the page that contained my search query.

For the city of Vancouver’s website, the easiest way to have their meta description show up in the snippet would be to include “BC” in the description. Something like this would probably work:

<meta name="description" content="City of Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada municipal government website." >

Here are some good rules to follow when you’re writing meta descriptions for your pages.

  1. Remember, you’re writing these descriptions for people, not search engines, so don’t go stuffing keywords in there (search engines don’t like that anyway).
  2. Write your description like you would write ad copy — grab attention, be relevant and informative, build benefit.
  3. Be honest and don’t exaggerate. You might be able to write a hot description that entices searchers to click, but if you overpromise in the description and don’t deliver in the landing page, people will just leave — with a poor image of you and your brand.
  4. Use your keywords in your description. This will give you a better chance of having your meta description show up in the SERPs and the search engines will bold the keywords — increasing your visibility and relevance for the searcher.
  5. Limit the number of characters in your description. In our experience, Google will show anywhere from 130 to 160 characters in the description. Yahoo will show up to 165 characters, and MSN up to 180. Keep your meta descriptions to below 160 characters (including spaces) to ensure that your full message appears. Personally, I shoot for 150 characters or less.

Now get back to your site and start optimizing those meta descriptions! If you have other meta description writing tips that you’d like to share, let us know.

– Software Delivered as Promised. No Surprises.

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